a new decade begins & a spiritual father dies

On June 7, 2019, I turned the page onto a new decade. I chose to mark it by a long weekend at my favorite beach with our family of four. Despite predictions of rain for the whole weekend, the sun broke through, and we had glorious weather for the better part of our beach days. I never tire of the rhythm of waves crashing on the shore, soothing and powerful and constant. I love looking into the horizon of ocean meeting sky and feeling wondrously small. In all my doubts about God and faith and goodness and struggle and suffering, the presence of the ocean is a reassuring reminder that I am a created being, and that I have a Creator. The world is not up to me to run, nor can I alone solve its problems or complexities. In the face of the vast expanse of the sea, I get to be a part of the creation whose primary job is simply to worship. (I am not saying worship is simple. Far from it. It can be quite costly, actually, and quite powerful, and worship is always transformative.)

In our time away, I found space to reflect on this past decade. It’s easily been – to quote Dickens – “the best of times and the worst of times.” Shortly after my last big birthday in 2009, we moved from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, for Seth’s first job as an assistant pastor. Later that same year, I launched a counseling practice at our church. God blessed us with the gift of our twins in 2010. Our daughters began preschool in 2013, and they started kindergarten in 2016. Seth and I celebrated our first decade of marriage, and I published my first book that same year (2016). Then we uprooted our family from Virginia and moved to South Carolina in 2017 to live closer to extended family while Seth pursued his Ph.D. I went to Italy to visit my dear friend, Maria, in 2018. I began working on a second small writing project in 2019 (due to be released this fall). And – I lose track of all of the years – I became an aunt to 7 additional nephews and nieces this decade as well (through a combination of births and foster care).

2010: our tiny twin bundles of joy arrive
2016: celebrating our 10 year anniversary in the Bahamas with dear friends Karen & Dan
2018: A view from the Italian coast near Naples while visiting Maria & her family

Those are a few of the major milestones in the category of “the best of times.” The “worst of times” – well, I would rather not dwell on them in detail. But I have blogged through some of them in this space. I have written about others. Other stories have yet to be told. To summarize, they follow the themes of my personal struggle with depression and anxiety, striving to live and write “Unashamed” while being more aware than ever before of the ways shame has had a hold on my life, grappling with deep communal tragedy, fighting my own stubborn sins of pride and entitlement and anger and fear, navigating how to be a wife and a mom and a writer and a counselor without losing sight of my primary identity as God’s beloved daughter, striving to live out the truth of my own writing and teaching, and learning my story and how to share it. There have been mentors and counselors and friends and family members who are witnesses to these dark moments and who have carried me – and our family – through them. There have been authors whose words I have clung to to make sense of the apparently senseless and meaningless, and who have served as guides to me along the journey of both the highs and the lows of this decade.

And that brings me to the second part of today’s post. One of those foundational guides and spiritual fathers died on my milestone birthday. David Powlison, professor and counselor at CCEF, passed into glory on June 7, 2019. I expect there will be many who will eulogize him – as well they should – and many who will remember the impact he had on their lives. I am one of them. I was first introduced to David Powlison in the fall of 2004 as I embarked on my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was my professor in the foundational course of the semester called Dynamics of Biblical Change, and I shared an auditorium with a hundred or so eager students. His instruction changed the way I viewed the process of personal change/sanctification. He taught a few other courses that were part of my degree in Biblical Counseling. Each time, he offered creative counseling insights into the human heart, and he exuded a deep compassion for people that was contagious.

David Powlison carried with him a sense of wonder at God’s Word and God’s work in the world. Whether it was a class or a conference, I cannot remember, nor do I recall the context – but I distinctly remember the way he highlighted the wonder of “a goldfinch in flight.” To this day, I don’t notice a goldfinch without thinking about what he said. I had never noticed goldfinches before, but now I can’t miss them. And I can’t help but to notice the beauty of their wings in flight. And I worship.

That was his larger point – it always was – to draw us to worship the God he himself delighted in. In worshiping, we change. We are conformed to whatever we love most. That is challenging, convincing, and hopeful all at the same time. I’ll end this post with a favorite quote from him, as I join a vast community that grieves his passing – with the hope he testified to – that we will meet again perfectly sanctified, in perfect communion with God and one another.

A Lenten prayer: prone to wander

This prayer is from a favorite book that I “happened” to be gifted with by dear friends just as Lent was beginning: Prone to Wander, by mother-son co-authors Barbara Duguid and Wayne Houk. I have found its call to worship, specific gospel-saturated prayers of confession, and then assurance of pardon to be spot on for my heart this Lenten season (and really any time!). I also love that there are suggested songs listed at the end of each entry. It’s been a personal worship guide – although written to be for a church, there are multiple uses to be sure.

And having some bit of personal interaction with both Barbara and Wayne through CCEF courses we’ve been a part of together makes the writing sing even more so. They are both tremendously gracious, and incredibly gifted at putting gospel truth to words.

 

living with the heat in your life (a biblical understanding for life’s weather)

how people changeOur church’s Sunday school is studying “How People Change” as one of the two classes offered for adults. [Insert shameless plug here: my pastor-husband has done an incredible job over the past five years of revamping our Sunday school so that it’s now something worth attending for an extra hour each Sunday – there are usually two classes offered, one that’s a biblical-theological track with a team of professors and educators from our church teaching through the Bible and one that’s practical theology] I introduced the DVD yesterday, and the topic was focusing on the “heat” aspect of CCEF’s model for change. [CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, is where I did my counseling internship, and their counselor-professors taught the counseling courses I took as part of my M.A. in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary.]

Identifying the “heat” in your life, or the weather, as I think it would be more aptly named, is the first place to begin in the process of change. Sadly, I’ve observed all too often that this is where ministry, friendships, and counseling/therapy can stay. And we are missing so much! The “heat/weather” in our lives is important, and there are equal dangers of either maximizing or minimizing it, but more often than not, we cannot change the “weather” of our lives in a similar way that we cannot determine the weather of our days. We learn to identify it, even understand it and possibly predict it, but at the end of the day, the weather is one of life’s givens. Our response to life’s weather is where change happens, or not. Where there is growth, or stagnation. Where there is joy mined through the depths of suffering, or a heart becoming bitter and resentful. And if we are honest, we have observed both tendencies in our lives. Right now, there are life situations I’m responding to with bitterness, and there are also life situations I’m responding to with hard-fought joy.

Without further ado – my intro to the DVD is below:

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What is “heat”? Of the following scenarios, raise your hand if you think that it would qualify as “heat”:

  1. Discovering that raccoons have been nesting in your attic for several months
  2. Going on vacation to the Caribbean
  3. Being sick with strep throat
  4. Finding out that you got a job promotion
  5. Moving across country for a new assignment
  6. Having a baby
  7. Getting asked out on a date by someone you’ve admired from afar for a long time
  8. A break-up of a dating relationship
  9. Your child getting first place in a competition
  10. Winning the lottery

Most likely, it was easier for you to identify the “bad” things than the “good” things as “heat,” but heat refers to both. I think a broader way of describing heat would be “what’s the weather in your life?” Sometimes it’s beautiful and sunny; other times (like this week!) it’s cold and rainy and cloudy. Weather can last for days on end, or shift from hour to hour. And so do the circumstances in our lives, and the opportunities for our hearts to be revealed shift constantly. In fact, I think this constant shifting is part of the “weather/heat” that reveals our hearts! Just when you’re enjoying a very pleasant season with your children, one of them gets sick – and then you get strep – and then she stays sick and you’re isolated and frustrated and angry with God. (True story of our past month in the Nelson household!)

And isn’t that how we view our “heat”? The circumstances in our lives? The biggest problem I face in my own heart and that I’ve observed through my years of counseling ministry is this tendency to blame the weather for my heart’s response. It’s why parents get such a bad rap – we’re always blaming them for every bad quality in our lives. It’s why I expect in marriage counseling that it will take a few weeks (at least) to begin to get down to work – because both of them tend to blame the other as the problem. It’s why I can get sucked into complaining as my primary mode of communication: I really do see my primary issues as my circumstances … and if only my kids would get well, my work schedule would calm down, my husband would listen better, summer would come, then I could live the godly life I know I should be living. Or at least be happy.

As you watch this video and discuss it afterwards at your table, and then reflect on it personally, think about the ways that you tend to blame the “heat” for your problems.

In many ways, this is the easiest week of Sunday school because “heat” is the easiest and first thing that we recognize in our problems. Let me present to you two tendencies that you may find in yourself – and consider this as we dive into this week’s lesson:

  • Over-focus on (maximize) the heat: This is the M.O. for most of us. It’s why we blame our spouses for marriage conflict, and why I think that if I lived in a bigger house, life would be easier. It’s why I think that once my kids are older and better behaved, I’m going to enjoy them more and be able to fully be “myself” again.
  • Under-focus on (minimize) the heat: This is less common, but just as distorting. There are some of you who tend to blame yourself so much that you never take into consideration the “heat” of your life as something that’s contributing to your heart’s response. You assume that your struggles today are always because of the sin in your heart. An example of this is someone who’s experiencing panic attacks. As she begins to tell me about them, and I am hearing the stress of her past year (moving, job change, parenting and marriage difficulties, health problems), it seems obvious to me why she’s having a panic attack. It’s her body’s reaction to so much external stress/heat. When I point this out, she has an “aha!” moment – she didn’t see it because she discounted the real impact of the circumstances of her life. This may also be your tendency if you’ve been abused – you tend to take on the shame of your perpetrator’s sin against you, and you assume the abuse occurred because you deserved it, or you were/are a bad person, or you didn’t lock your door at night, or you wore something inappropriate on a first date. Absolutely not! Part of the “heat” of a victim’s life is the way he/she takes on what’s not meant for him/her to take on – and part of believing the gospel truth will be the ability to disown the shame handed to you by the abuser, and to say, yes, the abuse was/is a major part of the “heat” of your life but it’s not the whole story nor is it the end of the story/your story.

This is inherently a hopeful message – to realize that “heat” is just that – the occasions/circumstances in your life that reveal your heart – because none of us can change much of our life’s weather anyway. To focus on changing what’s unchangeable brings great frustration. You usually cannot significantly change your “weather” – the past abuse, even the good things like job promotions or vacation – but you can always by the power of grace and the Spirit change your response to the weather. Naming heat as “heat” frees you to start focusing and prayerfully engaging your part – what can change – instead of getting frustrated by being stuck in what you cannot change (or what may never change –  e.g., you can’t rewrite your past).

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